Open the box. Dump out all the pieces. And scramble for your lives. Because this is competitive jigsaw puzzling. And it turns even the mildest of mannered Midwesterners into stone-cold competitors. Every January, the top teams in the game gather at the St. Paul Winter Carnival in frigid Minnesota to determine the fastest puzzlers in the country. ‘Wicker Kittens‘ invites you to choose your favorite contestants—the returning champs, the upstart challengers, the sunny family or the dark horse team with nothing to lose—and watch them try to put the pieces back together.
Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Wicker Kittens’ at 2014 SXSW Film, we profile the film’s Director Amy Elliott. ‘Wicker Kittens’ screens as part of the Documentary Spotlight & SXsports programs on Saturday, March 8, Tuesday, March 11, and Friday, March 14, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Find More Information & Tickets for ‘Wicker Kittens’ at SXSW Film – HERE
How did you first find out about competitive puzzling?
I know a guy named Mike Schulz and he runs a film festival up in northern Minnesota. My last film played there and we met each other. His girlfriend, he mentioned, actually competes in this contest and I sort of freaked out. I love jigsaw puzzles and I thought it was the strangest and most wonderful thing I’d ever heard, that it was actually a competitive sport, that there was actually a competition for this. I said we really have to make a film about it, and he was like, “sure” and we just did it. It started out that I thought it was going to be a short, just because “how seriously could people take it, was this really a big deal?” And then it really was a big deal [laughs]. And we just kept filming and realized it was a bigger story, so we made it a feature.
Once you had your idea, were you worried about finding a narrative to go along with this?
Not as much with other films I’ve made because there is sort of this built-in narrative arc. That’s one of the biggest things with documentaries is that it has to have even a sliver of plot and story. And with this, there was the built-in story of following these teams and then having this event where there were going to be winners and losers. So there was already a narrative arc and it made it easier in that sense where I knew that something was going to happen. That’s the big problem when you’re a documentary filmmaker is you can shoot for years and be like “Is anything ever going to happen?” We knew eventually something would. A bigger issue was finding the teams to follow. What we did in order to find that, we contacted the organizer of the contest and first she sent out an email to some of the top teams and asked if they’d be interested. We wanted to follow teams we thought would do well, and we ended up doing that. We followed four and only one didn’t place. I don’t think it would have been fun to follow four teams that finished in twentieth.
It seems like there are a lot of themes that emerge from this kind of story. Was there anything that stood out from families and teammates sharing their stories with you?
We didn’t want to make this the traditional contest documentary in that doing the jigsaw puzzles becomes a stand-in for something else in someone’s life, which is sort of like a documentary trope that you see a lot. We wanted to really make it about the jigsaw puzzling, people having an interest in this, and more about what people do to have meaning in their lives, what people do to fill their time. So we tried to keep people’s personal lives [out]. It leeches in, certainly, there are significant others that wander in and their kids are involved, but we tried to keep their personal lives out as much as we could as weird or counterintuitive as that sounds. We really wanted to make it about the experience of these people and show their obsession with the jigsaw puzzle. We didn’t want it so you could just plug in jigsaw puzzling with any other subculture and have it be like any other film.
Spending so much time with these competitors, what does jigsaw puzzling mean for them?
Everybody has a different take on it. One woman on one of the teams said something really interesting. For her, it was like creating order out of chaos, doing a jigsaw puzzle and putting things in order that I think is an interesting side of it. Other people like John, an Iowa State Representative, said that’s the nice thing about a hobby, you don’t have to explain it it’s just something you like to do. Another guy loved collecting old wooden jigsaw puzzles. So everybody had different reasons for doing it, I think probably the thing that actually, though no one comes out and says it, is, I think for me as an observer, the camaraderie of the teams in each case was pretty overarching. That was something everyone had in common, they really liked doing this with their teammates and doing this as a team endeavor.
You’re a photographer as well so how does that help your filmmaking eye?
I think it helps a lot. I think it’s one of those things where they really feed each other. I say about 50 percent of my work, my day job, is still photography but lately it’s become more and more video work as well. A lot of my clients want motion content for the web. I think the two disciplines, of shooting motion and still, really help each other. I think with documentary shooting a lot of times, content can kind of trump form. As a person who’s made their living shooting, the technical aspect is important to me, having it look nice and having the compositions of the shots matter. I think it really helps my documentary shooting, and in the same way, the motion shooting helps feed the still shooting as well. There’s more of a cinematic quality in my stills.
What was the funding like for this project?
We didn’t use Kickstarter, but we did get a legacy grant from the Minnesota Film and TV Board. Minnesota is where most of the film takes place. For the most part though we filmed it out of pocket. As a freelancer and still shooter, what I often do is if I know I’m going to be shooting somewhere for a project that I want, like a documentary, I’ll put out an email, call up my clients and say, “I’m going to be in Minnesota for two weeks, do you have any jobs for me?” And usually they’ll come through, so I’m able to at least pay for some of my travels by shooting for a paid client. Especially in this project, since we thought it would just be a short or something fun to do, we didn’t realize it was going to end up being so involved, we just did it out of pocket. In retrospect, knowing it was going to mushroom, we probably should have thought about that a little bit [laughs].
So after spending so much time watching people puzzle, did you get the urge to puzzle, too?
I did and I actually have a jigsaw puzzle on my kitchen table right now. I broke it out to celebrate getting into SXSW. It’s still out, and this was weeks ago. I’m not a very good puzzler.
About Amy C. Elliott
Amy C. Elliott is a documentary filmmaker and photographer with a focus on regional American culture. Her feature World’s Largest, about small towns with roadside attractions, premiered at SXSW 2010.